Culture At Large

Podcasting’s still, small voice

Craig Mattson

I sing the praise of Ira Glass, Sara Koenig and Jad Abumrad. I tout the triumph of closely produced programming: This American Life, Serial, Radiolab. I hail the voice of the podcast.

At Slate, Jonah Weiner extends this paean by suggesting that the podcasting voice can increase the range of what we care for. He refers to the “empathic encounter” of audio fare that “knocks us outside of a blinkered comfort zone.” There’s something deeply intimate, even erotic, he explains, about a voice in your ear that inclines you towards empathy with the other. Contrast this with the coolly authoritative, expertly modulated voices of newscasters reporting to listeners about, say, the Nepalese earthquake. Their standard American dialect garners sympathy at best and condescension at worst. But the creaky, tentative, um-cluttered voices of podcasters beguile us into curiosity and care. Conventional broadcasters proffer information. Podcasters foster identification.

Except when they don’t. Voices evoke localized, even idiosyncratic responses, as I discovered during my stint at a Gulf Coast radio show right out of college. I worked for years to efface my Midwestern nasality for Floridian ears - only to find myself later taking a post in Chicago, the city with Big Nasal Cavities. Ironic providence.

But I had it easy compared with today’s podcasters. The DoubleX Gabfest’s “Broadscasting” episode reports on snarky comments women’s voices often receive. One guest, Invisibilia podcaster Alix Spiegel, mentions with painful casualness that people hate her voice. Another, Chana Joffe-Walt, describes how hard it is just to sound like yourself - to which DoubleX’s Hanna Rosin replies that when listeners hate your voice, that might mean they hate you, too.

Jesus’ voice after Easter was insistently intimate, and yet so strange that no one recognized it at first.

The intimate voice, it would seem, tribalizes even as it empathizes. Sometimes we don’t like what a voice represents. It’s hard to like Rush Limbaugh’s shrill baritone if you dislike his ressentiment. But sometimes we just don’t like people’s voices, full-stop. And no voice murmuring sexily in the earbud is going to change that. In fact, the earbud itself may dramatize the relational fragmenting that podcasting empathy inadvertently fosters. How many times is an iPod exponentially more interesting that anything a nearby person has to say?

All this talk about tongues and tribes has me thinking of Jesus’ voice after Easter. His was an insistently intimate voice, and yet one so strange that no one recognized it at first - not Mary, not the all-night fishermen, not the guys on the Emmaus road. Maybe Jesus’ post-resurrection voice points us towards not an ethic, but an eschatology of voice. Maybe Jesus’ speech gets us imagining how our voices could yet sound - not how they should sound according to professionalized standards or personalized criteria. Speak like yourself? But your self is always becoming otherwise! Of course, we can know ourselves as straightforwardly as 1 John 3 does: we are God’s children. But that passage goes on to say that what we will be is not yet clear.

To speak and to listen Christianly entails fostering not just identification, important as that is, but also edification. I’m picking up Paul’s language about building one another up - something we might consider vocally in community. How are we building, raising, our voices in harmony with other voices, even the voices of our future selves? To adapt N. T. Wright’s useful phrase, we speak and listen so as to bring each other’s resurrected voices into the present.

What would our speech be like if we constantly, playfully, riskily sought to use all the voice we have, the whole length of our larynx, the fullest breath we can draw? No ear has yet heard.

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